At long last, a ‘wait’ off his mind

Dr. Bennett with diplomas
Dr. John Bennett proudly holds his 1964 medical degree from UT Southwestern (right) and his 2013 bachelor’s degree from UT Arlington.

By Kathryn Cargo

Last winter, after a delay of more than 50 years, Dr. John Bennett realized one of his lifelong dreams – receiving his bachelor’s degree.

Dr. Bennett, a 1964 graduate of UT Southwestern Medical School who is board certified in anesthesiology, walked across the UT Arlington commencement stage on Dec. 15, 2013, with his children, Brian Bennett and Christie Riel, by his side.

“I was proud to have my children with me and to have the opportunity. It’s almost like I floated across the stage. It was such an exhilarating experience,” he said of the ceremony, also shared with his wife, Judy.

As a UTA student, Dr. Bennett had had the opportunity to begin his medical studies early, so he took it, he said. In the years since, Dr. Bennett looked into getting his bachelor’s degree several times but was never successful.

Returning to an undergraduate campus involved accepting a drastically changed environment. When Dr. Bennett last studied at UTA, subject research was done by scanning through volumes in the library stacks, you had to feed coins into a pay phone to make a call, and a notebook was something made of lined pages bound by a spiral wire.

Still, the 74-year-old Arlington resident was determined.

“It was one of those areas of my life that wasn’t complete,” said Dr. Bennett, a diplomat of the American Board of Anesthesiology. “I've always been a very organized person. That’s something that just wasn't in its place – having that one degree.”

Dr. Bennett contacted Ashley Purgason, UT Arlington College of Science Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Research and Student Advancement, about a year ago to see if he could complete his degree.

“We wanted to do it because it meant a lot to Dr. Bennett,” Ms. Purgason said. “It was important to him to become an official alumnus to the institute.”

The long wait for Dr. Bennett made UT Arlington’s College of Science commencement very special, Ms. Purgason said.

“It’s 52 years late. It should have been in 1961,” she said. “That’s a long time to wait.”

When Dr. Bennett initially arrived at UT Southwestern Medical School in 1960, the institution had a faculty of 112 members and 450 supporting personnel. The enrollment stood at 391 medical students and 15 graduate students.

That’s a far cry from today’s UT Southwestern. The medical center now has three degree-granting schools – UT Southwestern Medical School, UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Science, and UT Southwestern School of Health Professions – as well as more than 2,600 full- and part-time faculty members and more than 9,100 permanent support staff. There are 940 medical students enrolled this academic year, along with more than 900 students in the other two schools and nearly 2,800 residents and trainees on campus.

As a fourth-year medical student in 1963, Dr. Bennett was busy in clinical training at Parkland Memorial Hospital when President John F. Kennedy and Gov. John Connally received care after the President was fatally shot and Gov. Connally was wounded in November of that year. Although he did not help with President Kennedy’s care, this moment inspired him with his pursuit in medicine, he said.

“Their presence in the hospital and the care they received from the people who were my teachers inspired me to want to be available if that sort of thing should ever come up again,” he said.

Dr. Bennett worked in anesthesiology while in medical school, and that’s how he got started in the field. After graduating from UT Southwestern, he went into the Air Force for two years. While on active duty, he was the deputy commander of his medical unit. After a break from the military, he joined the Air Force Reserves in 1984 as a flight surgeon. Dr. Bennett, who eventually rose to the rank of Colonel, graduated from the National Defense University and completed the Air Space Medicine Primary Course. In 1991, he was deployed to England for three months during Desert Storm.

As a flight surgeon, Dr. Bennett was ready to perform procedures if needed, but spent most of his time doing physicals and ensuring that pilots on flight status were in good health. The job, however, was one of constant danger. In one instance, a pilot that Dr. Bennett had flown with only weeks earlier was killed in a plane crash.

In civilian life, Dr. Bennett had a private practice, and through the years also served as an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Pain Management at UT Southwestern. His interests outside work and career include barbershop quartet singing, hunting, and fishing.

Last winter’s ceremony was a night he will never forget, Dr. Bennett said. Family and friends – some of whom he’s known for more than 60 years – came to watch him receive his bachelor’s degree.

“It was awe inspiring to have them there,” Dr. Bennett said.

Dr. Bennett said his life and career are a trail of opportunities realized. The most important thing for students to do, he said, is to seize every moment presented to them.

“I would encourage anybody that is given the opportunity to go toward the highest star you can reach,” he said. “It’s very gratifying to be able to do that.”